Woodstock Performers: Richie Havens
The First Performer at Woodstock
In what turned out to be a career-changing event, Richie Havens was the first performer to set foot on the stage at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair on August 15, 1969.
It wasn't planned that way. Havens was originally scheduled to be the fifth act on opening day, a day devoted to folk and acoustic artists. But when the opener couldn't get there on time due to the massive logistical problems that became synonymous with Woodstock, on he went.
Who Was Richie Havens?
Richard Pierce Havens was born January 21, 1941 to a Native American (Blackfoot) father and Afro-Caribbean mother. Music was a big part of the daily routine in the household, with Havens' mother singing as she went about her chores and his father's ability to play songs on the piano from memory. From an early age, Havens busied himself organizing doo-wop groups made up of like-minded neighborhood kids.
Church centered prominently for the family in their Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and Havens came to love gospel music. At the age of 16, he joined his first real group, the McCrea Gospel Singers.
Havens loved poetry almost as much as he loved music, and when the Beat culture sprang up in Greenwich Village, he decided he had to be a part of it. At the age of 20, he started hanging out in the Village, going to coffeehouses, attending poetry readings and listening to the beat and folk artists who played the clubs. At the age of 22, Havens picked up a guitar for the first time. Possessing his father's natural ability to play from memory, he began playing the songs he had heard other artists perform, and it wasn't long before he was onstage himself.
Havens was in demand as a solo artist and he recorded two demo albums with Douglas Records that didn't amount to much, but did catch the attention of Albert Grossman, who was always on the lookout for new folk talent. Albert—who already managed Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan—added Havens to his client roster and got him a record deal with Verve.
In 1967, Havens released his first album on Verve called "Mixed Bag", followed up in 1968 by "Something Else Again" which peaked at number 184 on the Billboard Pop Album chart. The one that put him on the path was "Richard P. Havens", a double-LP released in December 1968. A mix of studio and live recordings, it reached the number 80 position on the Billboard chart.
Havens was ready for Woodstock.
"Sometimes I feel
Like I'm almost gone, yeah
A long, long, long
Way from my home..."
Richie Havens' Woodstock
The festival was supposed to begin at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, August 15th. Traffic had been building steadily through Thursday, and 25,000 campers had already settled into their tents and makeshift abodes in the fields around the site. Havens and his backing musicians (all except for his bass player) had managed to get to the site, and when Sweetwater, the original opening act, didn't arrive on time, organizers asked Havens if he could go on.
Havens finally took the stage at 5:07 p.m. His original set was supposed to be only four songs, but when the crowd kept calling him back for more, organizers were happy to comply, as they were still waiting for other acts to arrive. The guys ended up playing a number of additional tunes, including covers of two Beatles' tunes. It was the improvised encore, though, that made Havens a star and linked his name forever with Woodstock.
The song "Freedom", also known as "Freedom (Motherless Child)" on some releases, was based on an old Negro spiritual that had been reworked to become a staple performed by folk singers of the day. Largely improvised by Havens while onstage when he couldn't figure out what else to play, he added the refrain "Freedom" in between the original verses. His musical style, where he pounded out the song on the body of the guitar as much as he played it on the strings, lent something urgent to the song.
Nearing the end of his set, he wandered off to the side of the stage while still playing, clearly exhausted and drenched in sweat. "Freedom" was to become one of the anthems to emerge from the Woodstock festival.
Richie Havens Performing "Freedom" at Woodstock
For me, the oddest thing was, I had to go see the movie to see what I did. I remember 'Freedom' and I remember 'Motherless Child,' but I didn't remember how it was structured. And I went to the movies and I saw it. It was the first time I saw myself on the screen, anywhere.— Richie Havens on the song 'Freedom', from the book "Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World"
Life After Woodstock
Havens appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival just two weeks after his appearance at Woodstock. He was still riding high, and his group's performance there is another one for the books.
Havens started his own record label in 1970 which gave him more freedom as an artist. The second album released on his Stormy Forest label was "Alarm Clock", which included a magical cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun." The LP was Havens' first album to be included on Billboard's Top 30 Chart, reaching the #29 spot, while "Here Comes the Sun" garnered a good amount of airplay on AM stations everywhere.
In the years following Woodstock, Havens remained committed to the ideals that Woodstock represented, and he was always willing to lend his name and talent to worthy causes and to appear at events paying tribute to inspirational leaders. A few examples include:
- In August 1970, he performed at the Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium in New York, donating his time and waiving his fee, as did other performers. Others on the bill included Johnny Winter, Janis Joplin (putting in a surprise appearance) and Big Brother, Al Kooper, The James Gang, Peter Yarrow (of "Puff The Magic Dragon" fame), Poco, Pacific Gas & Electric, Paul Simon, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steppenwolf. The concert, which was also called the Summer Festival for Peace, was among the first concerts in the U.S. to be actively held to raise funds for political and anti-war purposes. Concerts of this sort were becoming much more common at this point as the war in Vietnam dragged on.
- In July 1978, Havens performed at a benefit concert for The Longest Walk, which was a Native-American spiritual walk from Alcatraz to Washington, DC. The aim of the walk was to affirm Native treaty rights, a cause close to Havens' heart given his own indigenous roots.
- In December 1987, he joined an all-star lineup that included Judy Collins and Bruce Springsteen to pay posthumous tribute to artist and activist Harry Chapin at Carnegie Hall. An album of the event, "Tribute", was released in 1990.
- In 1991, Havens became 20th (living) recipient of the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award.
Though Havens never again reached the heights he did in the years immediately following Woodstock, he continued to tour and release albums. The '80s and '90s in particular saw him on the road almost constantly. He also took a turn at acting and appeared in stage productions, films and on television.
Richie Havens died of a heart attack on April 22, 2013. He was 72.
Richie Havens "Here Comes the Sun"
Five Musical Facts
- In some of the source material on Woodstock, Havens claimed to have played for three hours, as organizers kept asking him to return to the stage. The actual amount of time was far less, based on his start time and the time other acts took to the stage.
- Havens appeared in the original 1972 stage production of The Who's "Tommy." The Who appeared at Woodstock on Day 2.
- At the request of Sean Penn, who was jury president that year, Havens performed "Freedom" at the opening ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.
- "Freedom" also appears in the 2012 movie "Django Unchained."
- Havens was cremated and, on August 18, 2013, his ashes were scattered over the original Woodstock site from the air.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson